Getting to Blackreach was only half the battle. Alftand felt like a spring carnival compared to the overwhelming number of enemies that prowled the shadowy depths of Blackreach. Chaurus, Falmer, Dwarven Centurions, giants. At one point while blasting back a small army of Falmer Shadowlurkers, her Unrelenting Force unleashed an ancient dragon that had been somehow trapped in the ruins. A dragon.
“Are you kidding me?” Farkas balked, drawing the Sanguine Rose just as Luthien was summoning her Dremora.
Without the skies at his back, he wasn’t able to fly far, which gave them an unexpected advantage. As their Dremora charged in together snarling, “I honor my lord by destroying you!” Luthien and Farkas hung back loosing arrows from a distance until they had no choice but to join ground combat and put that dragon down once and for all.
Its dying screams roused every living creature in Blackreach, drawing them all out of the shadows. The constant snarling of their Dremora bellowing, “I smell weakness,” coupled with the clash of Daedric weaponry was all they heard for endless hours. Luthien was starting to wish she’d just stayed in bed, mulling over that comfortable, yet forbidden place in her dreams.
The constant drain of her magicka had started to affect both her health and her stamina, but they soldiered on, mucking through the quagmire of confusion and biting their tongues to hold back the bitter curses each time they doubled back on a place they’d already been to. Well, Luthien bit her tongue, but more than once she heard Farkas muttering swears to himself that would have made Windhelm’s resident retired sailor, Captain Lonely-Gale, blush.
It was exhausting, and just when she could feel herself starting to lose all hope, they came upon a strange construct and spied a gathering of human slaves milling around the Falmer. They crept up the shadowed stairs, hiding as they drew their bows and silently took out as many of them as possible before they were discovered, and then back to back they faced their foes until every last one was dead. Luthien gulped down her last magicka potion, which was hardly enough to replenish her dwindling power, and leaned her back onto Farkas, who was still catching his breath behind her.
“Hey, we haven’t been up there yet.”
She followed the gesture of his pointing arm to the tower shining like a dull, gold beacon in the dark underworld. “Under deep. Below the Dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark…”
“It was something the mad mudcrab said,” she grinned. “Find Mzark and its skydome.”
“That looks like a skydome to me.” He lowered a smile down over his shoulder at her. “Let’s go.”
Climbing the long, stone bridge that spiraled up to meet the tower gates, she could almost feel her spirits lightening again. When they pushed through the golden double doors into the tower, she scanned the interior for enemies, but there were none. They didn’t let their guard down though, both of them summoning their dremora to walk with them as they combed the tower. Both dremora remained silent, almost perturbed that they’d been summoned without cause, and when they returned to their plain in Oblivion, Luthien let them stay there.
They came upon another set of doors that opened up into an Oculary, a familiar structure that led up a winding passageway to a mysterious device that actually reminded her of the Oculary she and Farkas had encountered when searching for information on the Eye of Magnus years earlier. A series of bright lenses and crystals hung entangled from an intricate web of metalwork, a great glow of green light hummed and pulsed in the air as they approached. Luthien scanned the walkway leading upward above the crystals, remembering the trials she’d put to the test during the Eye of Magnus quest.
“Maybe not the same, but similar.”
He followed her up the rotunda until they came to the control panels, which she studied for a long time while he stood fidgeting at her back. Shifting his weight, clearing his throat, crossing his arms, driving her crazy. Snapping a hard look over her shoulder just as he was lifting his thumbnail to gnaw between his teeth, he lowered an apologetic gaze to the floor and didn’t move again until she reached into her back to lift out the cubed lexicon Septimus had given her. It sunk perfectly into the mechanism at the far right, but nothing happened.
“Maybe the lenses need to line up,” Farkas offered.
He was just trying to be helpful, and she should have been proud of him for even remembering the ridiculous amount of work it had taken to align the lenses in the oculary at Mzulft. Heating, cooling, but as she glanced up at the Dwemer construct again, she saw no crystals and so turned her attention to the control panel instead.
At first it seemed that no amount of button pushing was going to line things up, and she could feel her frustration and temper rising to an apex that would make it impossible to think clearly at all. Farkas’s hand came down on her shoulder, gentle fingers squeezing. “Relax, Lu. You’re frustrating yourself, and when you get frustrated, you don’t think so clear.”
Softening, she nodded and stepped back. The fruits of her labor hadn’t paid off, and the worst that could happen was… well… nothing.
Farkas drew the lexicon out of the receptacle and then dropped it back in, watching the buttons light up. He stepped toward them, glancing up only for a moment to study the mechanism, and then pressing the second button in from the right. The mechanism came to life, whirling the lenses around. He pressed the button beside it, watching the long metal arms spin and turn the lenses, and then he pushed the second button in again. It lit up the third button just in front of where Luthien had been standing, and he leaned over to hit it with a careful finger. Arms whirred to life again, lenses retracting as they twirled in a complicated dance, and when they came to a halt, the last button on the panel lit up green.
He seemed to be holding his breath, his broad shoulders drawn back, chest rigid as he moved left and lingered over that last button for what felt like an eternity. Dropping his finger down, the arms pulled back, sending down an egg-shaped, green Dwemer box that whizzed and clunked open with a triumphant echo. Farkas was only grinning, drawn back to look down on his handiwork with unspoken pride, even when Luthien jumped and squealed with excitement, throwing her arms around him from the side.
“You did it, Farkas! You’re a bloody genius!”
Chuckling as he leaned into her, heads resting together as they admired the open box simply waiting to be explored, he admitted, “I think that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me.”
“I talk about how clever you are all the time,” she withdrew her arms and nudged him toward the stone bridge leading down to the platform. “Now let’s go get that scroll and get out of this nightmare.”
He took the Elder Scroll from the box; it seemed only fitting that he be the one to retrieve it, and then he lowered it into her satchel carefully. They swiped the inscribed lexicon from the receptacle near the controls and sunk that into the bag as well, so they could return it to Septimus Signus once they’d defeated Alduin.
And right then she really felt like they could defeat Alduin, as they sauntered through the Tower of Mzark in search of the lift. For the first time since the dreams had come to haunt her slumber, since she’d learned from the Greybeards that she was the Dragonborn, she felt confident that she was following the path the gods had designed for her. If she died, she didn’t care, just so long as she took Alduin down with her.
As the lift carried them to the surface, the two of them couldn’t stop smiling at each other. They’d come so far, through such difficult odds and they had done it together.
“Where now?” he asked, as the lift settled in the caged entryway.
“Windhelm, I guess.”
Glancing up as they passed through the gate, she saw a figure running up the icy hillside toward them. “Who in Oblivion…” Farkas muttered, shielding his eyes to get a better view of the growing body stumbling as he raced through the snow.
“Bandits?” she wondered aloud, drawing Wuuthrad.
“No, there’s only one.” Squinting as he turned his head, he lowered his hand from his forehead, mouth slack with confusion. “It’s a courier.”
“A courier?” They started down the hill to meet up with him, but by the time they reached each other the young man was so out of breath it took several minutes of his leaning down, gasping as he caught up with himself.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” she asked, as he finally stood upright and unshouldered his pack.
“I’ve been looking all over for you, my queen. The orc at the College in Winterhold said I might find you here.”
“Urag?” she glanced over at Farkas, confusion wrinkling her brow. “What word from Urag?”
“This message isn’t from Urag, it’s from Windhelm.”
“Ulfric,” she nodded. “What word from the High King?”
“I… You haven’t heard then?” His brow furrowed with nervousness and he lowered himself to one knee, head bowed as he said, “The High King is… dead.”
It was like a heavy blow to the gut, and when her legs started to tremble beneath her like shivering bowls of troll fat, she would have fallen if Farkas had not thrust his arms under hers from behind to hold her up. “What is the meaning of this?” he barked over her shoulder, the young courier shrinking back from his rage like a timid bunny.
“Murdered in the Palace of the Kings by an assassin two nights past along with half his court. This letter is from Galmar Stone-Fist. He requests that you return to Windhelm immediately to take up your rightful position as Jarl of Windhelm until the Moot can meet and name you High Queen.”
His words moved straight through her addled mind, the madness of grief and loss tangling her in a web of horror so thick she didn’t think she would ever snap out of it. Ulfric dead? It just wasn’t possible. He was strong, the Palace of the Kings one of the most well-guarded fortresses in Skyrim. His Thu’um would have protected him…
Long after the courier lowered the missive into Farkas’s hands and left them standing amidst the frigid wind and ice of Alftand, Luthien’s wits were frayed as she tried to make sense of those words.
She didn’t believe a word of it, wouldn’t believe it. She began to march down the hillside, muttering to herself that it was lies. All of it; lies. Ulfric Stormcloak was not dead. He was too strong for death. He was going with her to the Throat of the World to face Alduin. He’d promised. A Thalmor trick, she told herself, some kind of trap, a distraction from her mission. It had to be. They were waiting for her on the road somewhere, waiting to ambush her so they could stop her from completing the task the gods had sent her to perform.
“Lu,” Farkas brought a hand to her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and kept walking. “Luthien, stop.”
“No,” was all she said, teeth gritted tight together.
“Lu, you need to sit down for a minute and try to pull yourself together.”
Pulling herself together was out of the question. She had dreamed another life, let herself dip into forbidden fantasy and explore the possibilities. And it had been beautiful and perfect and she’d wanted it so badly when she woke, but she never wanted this. She’d never wanted Ulfric to die and leave her alone in the world once again.
She walked and walked, determined to reach Windhelm and prove that the courier had been a Thalmor agent sent to sow seeds of doubt and fear into her. It was the Thalmor way; mind tricks. Even long after exhaustion threatened to claim her and drive her straight into her own grave, she walked without sleeping, without speaking, or eating. Every time she stumbled, he was always there to catch her and right her again, but as soon as her feet were steady she marched forward once more.
Farkas almost couldn’t keep up with her, his own weariness dragging him down, but he always picked up his feet, sprinting to catch up and trying to convince her to take a bit of food, a moment’s rest.
She refused him.
There was no working through the thoughts racing through her mind then in those seemingly endless, dark days during which they traveled. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept of him being gone. She wouldn’t believe it until she saw it with her own eyes, and even then she might still need convincing. There were moments when she simply stopped on the road and lifted her face to the sky, staring up at the heavens and silently asking the gods what she’d ever done to deserve such endless struggle and hardship. She’d followed their path, was doing their will. What more did they want from her?
And just when Farkas arrived over her shoulder, thankful for the moment’s respite, she would lower her gaze and start walking again, convincing herself once more that it was a lie.
Her husband was not dead. He was waiting for her to come home to him, waiting to take her in his arms and fill her belly with another son, the son she’d dreamed of. She just had to get there.